Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Harper, $27.99, 322 pages)
Two of Ann Patchett’s most recent novels have been distinctive for their exotic locales and propulsive plots that teem with the stuff of today’s headlines. In Bel Canto, a terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in an unnamed South-American country leads to a tense hostage standoff. State of Wonder is the story of a medical research project that goes awry deep in the Amazon jungle. While both novels highlight Patchett’s narrative command and her keen psychological insight, they’re at some remove from the subject matter of marriage and the family at the core of her 2013 nonfiction collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
Readers looking for more of the latter from Ann Patchett will be ecstatic about her seventh novel, Commonwealth. Spanning five decades, it’s the story of two families whose lives are altered forever by an affair that starts with an impulsive kiss at a christening in Downey, California in the 1960s. With patience and care, out of that incident, Patchett weaves a deeply beautiful tapestry linking the blended families spawned by the encounter, revealing in the process some of the ineffable mysteries of our most intimate connections.
When Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Bert Cousins shows up uninvited at the christening of Franny Keating, daughter of police officer Fix Keating, he has no way of knowing the day will lead to what he thinks of as “the start of his life.” Though it occurs offstage, by the second chapter, set in the present, we learn that Bert has left his wife Teresa to marry Beverly Keating, after their illicit kiss, and move with her and her two daughters to Virginia. Bert’s four children join them there during summer vacations.
Patchett races the lives of the Keating and Cousins families through marriages and divorces, illnesses and deaths (including a tragically unexpected one), career successes and failures and even a teenager’s clumsy act of arson. A description of these events might make them seem no more remarkable than ones that occur in the life of any family, but Patchett unobtrusively intensifies their quotidian reality. That’s most evident in a scene early in the novel, for example, when the six bored children, ranging in age from 6 to 12, embark on an ill-conceived excursion while their parents sleep late in their motel room. The almost unbearable tension of that scene foreshadows a later tragedy.
Above all, Commonwealth is a subtle examination of the way families recall and tell stories about themselves. About midway through the book, Franny, now in her mid-20s and a law-school dropout working as a cocktail waitress in Chicago, meets a much older novelist, Leon Posen. Their relationship deepens, and one of its byproducts is a National Book Award-winning novel entitled Commonwealth, based on the story of the Keating and Cousins families.
Franny realizes the novel is something “she had brought down on herself,” by sharing the family history with a writer who insists he has artfully transformed fact into fiction. Unsurprisingly, not all of the family members agree. Even Franny herself comes to believe what she’s done is a “betrayal of her family,” fueling some interesting speculation about how different the story might be if seen through the eyes of one of the other characters.
Though Commonwealth, by its conclusion, comes together in a more than satisfying way, it takes some effort to settle into the novel’s non-chronological narrative. What’s impressive about Patchett’s choice of this architecture is her effective use of multiple points of view and seamless flashbacks to reflect how her characters’ actions and the events that shape their lives resonate through time.
For all the sorrow that haunts it, Commonwealth is not lacking for moments of humor. When, for example, during the summers the six Keating and Cousins children spend together in Virginia, they’re made to line up by age in the kitchen to be fed, it seems to them as though they have “wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist.” The novel’s scenes at the house Leon Posen rents from an actress who wants a part in the movie version of Commonwealth is also a knowing send-up of the alcohol-fueled summer literary culture of the Hamptons.
There’s no escaping the somberly beautiful essence of Patchett’s novel. In its closing pages, a middle-aged Franny, returning to Virginia for a Christmas visit to her mother, now the ex-wife of Bert Cousins, realizes she’s “unable to map out all the ways the future would unravel without the moorings of the past.” It takes a masterly and empathetic writer like Ann Patchett to bring readers to that same profound understanding.